I saw a crow building a nest, I was watching him very carefully, I was kind of stalking him and he was aware of it. And you know what they do when they become aware of someone stalking them when they build a nest, which is a very vulnerable place to be? They build a decoy nest. It’s just for you.–Tom Waits
One of the best things about being a birder on the Texas Gulf Coast is being able to continue having great birding experiences right after the spring migration ends. Courtship, nesting, and rearing young continue right into the summer–to be followed shortly by fall migration! In addition to visiting Smith Oaks Rookery as we always do in spring and early summer, we have been visiting the McClendon Park Rookery. White Ibis and Cattle Egrets are the main attractions at this new rookery.
We have seen young White Ibises before at the Pilant Lake Rookery at Brazos Bend State Park, but McClendon offers much better views–but under less aesthetic conditions. I learned a bit about etiquette at McClendon the other day: Did you know that when you drive by photo-birders you should blow your horn and scream gibberish at them? People must be visiting southwest Houston from Dauphin Island, Alabama! Another photo-birder got beaned by a projectile thrown from a passing car at McClendon. There is apparently no shortage of riffraff in this part of town–so watch yourself if you decide to bird here.
Clearly, rookeries offer observations of some of the most interesting bird behavior–from displays, feeding, and young birds trying to murder each other–and all the adults are in their plumed finery! Snowy and Great Egrets seem to have to most active, aggressive young. We haven’t witnessed cormorant chicks trying to kill each other, but they put on quite a show when a parent returns to the nest with food. The violent, in-your-face action makes photography difficult, although we continue to try when opportunities present themselves.
Finally, as we continue to bird over the years, we continue to rack up observations of additional species at new locations. To expand our rookery knowledge, we will now have to travel to more logistically challenging spots–namely rookeries that require a boat to observe. I have briefly observed a Reddish Egret/Tricolored Heron rookery from a distance by boat in Galveston Bay, and can’t wait to get back. It’s just a matter of time and money. That’s all!
Courtship consists in a number of quiet attentions, not so pointed as to alarm, nor so vague as not to be understood.—Laurence Sterne
Lafitte’s cove is often thought of as a mecca for migrant songbirds, but it’s usually a good idea to check the margins of the lakes for shorebird and wader activity. On one recent visit (4/16), we were lucky to see the courtship ritual of the Black-necked Stilt. Although similar to that of the closely related American Avocet (which we have documented previously), the Black-necked Stilt ritual encompasses a number of different, albeit equally charming, behaviors.
The male first approaches a female that has signaled her readiness by adopting a horizontal posture. The male nods.
He then stirs the water with his beak . . . .
The male strolls to the female’s other side . . . .
Here, he again stirs up the water with his beak . . . .
The male then mounts the female and consummates the relationship . . . .
After copulation, the male descends. He then places his wing over her body and crosses his bill over hers . . . .
The pair then promenades together for a few paces. They are now together . . . for at least this breeding season.
Despite being crowded, Fiorenza Park is a nice, easy get-away for Houston bird photographers. And there are a number of opportunities that would be difficult to realize elsewhere. I have already discussed some of the weird invasive species that can be observed here in previous posts. The most appealing opportunities, though, are offered by a hill that overlooks the bayou connecting the north and south lakes. A small road leads to within yards of where to stand for optimum shooting on the hill-top—talk about your low-energy photo-birding!
Cormorants can be seen flying from the south lake and along this bayou carrying nesting materials and fish to small islands in the north lake (and back again empty handed, so to speak). Sometimes the birds fly almost at eye-level as seen from the hill. Besides cormorants, waders sometimes fly along the same path. The hill-top also allows the photographer to survey most of the bayou where waders can be seen hunting.
I struggled initially with this spot because the birds typically come in too fast for my normal (albeit unusual) photographic technique: I pick my shots and shoot one frame at a time (with autofocus confirmation). My rationale for this is three-fold. If I am shooting with flash, the flash capacitor can’t recharge fast enough to keep up with a high frame rate. Also, the typical machine gun approach is hell on shutters. This is not so much of a problem with the 7DII, which is rated for 200k actuations, but the old 7D had a life expectancy of only 100k shots. A burned-out shutter is no fun right in the middle of shoot. Just firing away in high-speed mode also means weeding a bunch of junk shots, which is also no fun.
For this locale, I switched to a more typical bird-in-flight (BIF) methodology: I just blaze away in high-speed AI servo (without autofocus confirmation or flash) with image stabilizer in panning mode, and I pick out the goodies from a bunch of baddies. It definitely works better than my initial conservative approach.
Despite the park appearing somewhat sterile compared with, say, Brazos Bend State Park or many of the local national wildlife refuges, Great Blue, Little Blue, and Tricolored Herons and Snowy and Great Egrets enjoy great hunting success along the Fiorenza bayou. South American armored catfish are often taken, and I have heard anecdotal reports of Tilapia, (a South American invasive cichlid) also being grabbed.
Having the camera in the BIF mode described above had one unpredicted benefit in the case of the image below. I saw the bird strike and just blazed away. I never actually saw what the bird had until I chimped for exposure ex post facto. According to the frame rate, the bird was in contact with the snake for about 4-tenths of a second in total. The snake was wound around the bird’s beak for about 2-tenths of a second when the bird dumped the snake. According to long-time friend and herpetologist D.S. who identified the snake for me, the diamondback watersnake is an extremely aggressive fast-biter when cornered or attacked. I can vouch for this expert assessment: This bird wanted no part of that snake once it figured out what it was dealing with.
I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection. –Charles Darwin
On our most recent visit to Buffalo Run Park in Missouri City (8/6/16) it seemed that some of the Orange Bishops (Euplectes franciscanus) were a different color than during previous visits. In mid-July, I thought that all the males were orange and black (with a muddy orange-brown mantle) and a hint of red in the throat.
The redness of the throat was heightened when the birds went into display mode as you can see in the images immediately above and below. The red color could be structural (due to the physical optics of the feather), a result of pigmentation, or both. It seems likely that this red color could be in part structural, like the colors of a hummingbird gorget, but for reasons discussed below it seems unlikely that the red is due to this alone.
On August 6, I saw a number of birds that were clearly more red than orange. Because the difference was so striking, I wondered if these redder birds were actually a different species, namely the Southern Red Bishop (Euplectes orix). Some quick research revealed that the Southern Red Bishop is not kept as a pet for some reason and thus not likely to be found in pet shops, the ancestral source of the Buffalo Run birds. Also, although very similar in general appearance to the Orange Bishop (aka, Northern Red Bishop), the black face mask of the southern species extends around the bottom of the lower bill into the throat. The birds at Buffalo Run Park, then, are clearly the northern species.
Color in birds is a fascinating and complex subject involving some rather difficult physics and biochemistry. Color can be a function of both pigmentation and physical optics (interference and diffraction) of light as it passes through the feathers. Reflection from lighter feathers beneath the outer feathers is also implicated in some avian colors. Interestingly, the color of birds can be affected by diet, especially in the case of yellows, reds, and oranges which are derived from ingested carotenoid compounds.
As a test of whether the red color in the redder Orange Bishops was structural, I was sure to capture images of the birds facing into and away from the sun (below). I would expect differences in appearance if the color was structural, much as a hummingbird looks different when illuminated from different angles. I noticed no change in color due to direction of light in the case of the redder bishops. Likewise the orange Orange Bishops appeared very similar facing into and away from the sun, with the exception of the throat. The two birds above are facing into the sun, and the bird in an earlier post was facing away from the sun.
For these reasons, I suspect that pigmentation is involved in the red of these birds. But this begs a number of other interesting questions. If carotenoid pigments are often involved in the warm colors, and these compounds are found in the diet of birds, how is it that bishops look the same in Africa as Texas? Surely they are not eating exactly the same plants. Or are they? Is it natural for bishops to redden into a deeper red later in the breeding season? If so, is this due to diet or genetics or both? Are the red versus orange birds simply a matter of individual variation, the stuff of natural selection? A few hours chasing African birds around on a sweltering Texas morning has provided more questions than answers.
Finally, although the females are very sparrow-like in appearance and much more shy and difficult to photograph than the males, I made several attempts to maneuver close to them for an image. I would note that, ultimately, color in breeding male birds is all about female breeding preference. Buffalo Run Park could be natural laboratory for the study of how invasive species adapt to a new environment, specifically breeding in a new context. I foresee a master’s thesis for some budding young ornithologist.
Those who live by the sea can hardly form a single thought of which the sea would not be part. –Hermann Broch
Over the past week or so, I’ve made several dawn and dusk visits (once with Elisa) to the East End/East Beach area to observe and photograph summer shorebird behavior—which abounds at this time of year. Unfortunately by 8 am the area has been a blazing inferno, making photography a challenge.
In an earlier post I mentioned the appearance of a new tidal channel near the East End Lagoon Preserve. This week I took a look-see to find out the status of the new channel and the impact it might be having on the wildlife of the area. As I expected, the channel has expanded: it is now about twenty yards wide at the mouth during high tide. A Reddish Egret patrolled the channel mouth while Laughing Gulls, Royal and Sandwich Terns, and the odd Willet mostly stood around while I photographed them. They were taking some interesting prey, though.
During the warm months, a strange, eel-like fish, the Atlantic cutlassfish (aka ribbonfish), is abundant in the bays and channels along the Texas Gulf Coast. Laughing Gulls and Royal Terns were having a field day eating them this week. Although the birds consumed them enthusiastically, both species seemed to have difficulty swallowing the fish’s long, thread-like tail. Some birds were walking around with a silver thread trailing out of their beaks!
The real story at this time of year on Texas beaches and barrier islands is, of course, breeding. The Royal Terns, Least Terns, and to a lesser extent, the Sandwich Terns, clearly had mating on their minds. Royal and Sandwich Terns were doing some dancing. Male Royal Terns and Least Terns were presenting females with a nuptial gift of small fish. A few Least Terns were nest-sitting. Some Royal Terns were copulating right out in public. Gracious! What will the drunken fishermen think?
Plovers, too, were everywhere on the East End of Galveston. Wilson’s Plovers were breeding along with Least Terns in the protected areas. Snowy Plovers were running around everywhere, but likely not nesting—their coastal nesting areas are further south in Texas. A few Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers were standing around trying to look innocent—as if we didn’t know that they are tardy for an appointment in the high-Arctic. Or perhaps they are among those rare birds that reside in Texas during the summer but do not breed?
Finally, lending a splash of color to the seascape were American Avocets in breeding colors. These birds are either very late spring migration stragglers or belong to scattered clusters of birds, rare summer residents, that inhabit the Texas Coast. Whatever their story, it’s nice to be able to see shorebirds in breeding (summer) and non-breeding (winter) plumage at the same locale.
The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. –Jules Verne
Last week we took a photo-birding road trip along the southwest Oregon coast, from Newport to Brookings. Our goals were to unwind and enjoy the cool, fresh air, put the terrible weather and Texas floods out of our minds, maybe pick up a few new species, and sample a few new Pacific Northwest brews.
The main natural attractions in southern Oregon during late spring are the marine mammals and breeding colonies of seabirds. Breeding songbirds can also be seen in the coastal forests, and we watched Wilson’s Warblers gathering insects for young and heard the song of the Orange-crowned Warbler, a species we see often in Texas but never hear sing because it doesn’t breed here. For a few hours we were puzzled by the Orange-crown’s song: it sounds a bit like the song of the Northern Parula (so we knew we were dealing with a warbler), albeit lower and slower. But with a little help from iBird we sorted out most of the songbird songs, the Orange-crowned Warbler included.
The most common seabird we saw was the Common Murre. We photographed two major colonies, Coquille Point and Yaquina Head. These breeding colonies exist on small, rocky islands, and are among the most spectacular birding destinations in the country. Common Murres, Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants, Pigeon Guillemots, and Western and Glaucous-winged Gulls can be seen in these colonies, at least at a distance, in southern Oregon.
Common Murres can be seen rarely as individuals fishing off rocky shores and jetties as well as in huge flotillas of thousands of birds far off shore. Common Murres typically lay one egg that they incubate on their feet, without nesting materials, penguin-style. A second egg may be layed if the first egg is lost to accidents or predators. Predators of Common Murre eggs and young include crows and gulls. Bald Eagles will grab adult birds, and we heard that an eagle was hunting around Yaquina Head while we were there.
Given the superficial similarities between murres and penguins, I wondered if a predator-prey relationship existed between the murres and sea lions paralleling the famous relationship between penguins and leopard seals documented by wildlife photographer Brian Clark Howard for National Geographic. I could find no references to specific predators eating murres while at sea, although sharks and toothed whales seem possible candidates. California Sea Lions have been observed grabbing Common Murre chicks in the water near breeding colonies, though. Storms and fishing nets certainly kill many as dead murres sometimes wash up on shore and images of drowned murres and other seabirds tangled in fishing nets and lines exist from around the Northern Hemisphere.
Our last stop was at the Oregon State Aquarium in Newport. We usually steer clear of zoos and the like, but we read that there was an open air aviary with a number of pelagic Pacific species that are very hard to photograph in the wild up close because they stay out to sea, and their nesting areas are federally protected (it is unlawful to approach closer than 500 feet). The aquarium opens at 10am, so photography is tough. Nevertheless, we took some acceptable portraits of Rhinoceros Auklets, puffins, and other alcids—images that would be extremely challenging to capture in any other way.
Amazing as the animals of the Pacific Northwest are, the dazzling display of plant life, native and exotic, especially flowering species, give them a run for their money—fodder for a future post.
Out where the rivers like to run
I stand alone
And take back something worth remembering —Paul Williams, Out in the Country
Not being from Borneo, it usually takes me a while to get used to birding the Texas Gulf Coast in summer. After a few weeks outside, I’m fairly acclimated, the dreary exhaustion of work has lifted, and I have sweated off a dozen or more pounds.
Despite the hardships, there are a number of positives associated with Texas summer photo-birding. Usually by June the allergy season is pretty much over (for me), and my senses of vision and smell are sharper. By mid-summer and weeks of being in the field trying to get in tune with the sensations of nature, I can smell other humans coming from quite a ways off. I’ve read that many foreigners say that Americans smell like soap. I concur—although after a day in the field I probably smell more like a thrift shop.
And most of the time during summer there is almost no one else outside—not even the usual noisy rabble of filthy litterbugs! Texas is just plain too brutal in summer for most people, casual birders included.
Brazos Bend State Park is where I go most often in the summer for three reasons: It’s easy to get to, the bugs are tame compared to most other places around here, and it’s a great place to photograph hunting and fishing scenes. Hope springs eternal for capturing a big wader with a water snake, baby alligator, or nutria—although it’s usually fish, frogs, and insects.
Of course, like everywhere else at this time of year, there are lots of young birds around, too. By late July or early August, the first of the earliest migrants start arriving. By that time, I’m well over the heat, humidity, and bugs and am longing for a change. Of course, Texas is often merciless and won’t allow for a significant cool-down until at least October, when fall migration is in full swing. And then, of course, there are the summer trips. But that’s another story . . . .
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May . . . . –William Shakespeare
Last weekend the weather was spectacular, and Elisa and I took full advantage. East Beach, Galveston Island, Texas was our first stop of the weekend. We were surprised to find a large flock (100+) of American Avocets, mostly in breeding color (rusty-red/cinnamon head, neck, and breast) in the main lagoon just south of the parking area.
The main breeding range of the American Avocet is from the Texas Panhandle to south-central Canada, west to the Pacific Coast. American Avocets also breed along the South Texas Gulf Coast. There is a wintering population of Avocets all along the Gulf Coast, but we don’t typically see them in breeding colors this far north.
As we watched the ruddy-faced flock, we soon we noticed that some pairs were engaged in their charming and elegant courtship and mating behaviors. All images in this post taken with a Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC) under natural light.
After photographing birds in the lagoon for a time, I walked south along the strand line of the Gulf. On the return hike, about a dozen Avocets flew from the lagoon and landed right in front of me in a few inches of Gulf water. One pair began courtship behavior almost immediately, as shown in this sequence of images. First, the female presented herself to the flapping and splashing male by holding her body parallel to the ground.
The male soon mounted the female and copulation began. In about a minute, the act was complete, and the elegant post-mating dance began . . . .
The pair crossed beaks as they walked along together. They then separated bills and walked together side-by-side, necks strongly inclined forward.
After a few seconds, the birds rotated their necks into a vertical position, with bills pointed strongly downward. The pair walked along together in this posture for a few paces. Necks became more vertical as the pair promenaded along together for a few paces, then separated. Soon, they were again threshing the water for prey.
We are now entering a season of extravagance—extravagance of avian color, plumage, and behavior. Soon, displays, mating and nesting will be going on all along the Texas Gulf Coast. Early birds have already begun. Some waders are sporting nuptial (breeding) plumes, and lore and leg/foot colors are beginning to pop. Hormones are surging through bloodstreams. Many of the waders and other water birds are on edge: Common Moorhens are fighting it out amongst themselves for dominance, and Great Blue Herons are nesting deep in the marshes. A Great Horned Owl, too, is currently nesting in the woods west of 40-Acre Lake, Brazos Bend State Park.
Soon, an exciting time of the year for birding will become the most exciting time. Neotropical migrant songbirds will be showing up in droves along the coast. For now, as far as migrants are concerned, we’ll have to settle for American Bitterns. Recently American Bitterns have been extremely active at Brazos Bend State Park (especially Pilant Lake). They have been hunting, calling, and engaged in threat displays among themselves and in the face of humans. American Bitterns do not often breed in Texas, and are sometimes described as “winter visitors” to Texas. Brazos Bend Bitterns are most likely on their way to their breeding grounds in the northern U.S. or Canada.
Although the weather continues to look pretty bad for adventures in the out-of-doors, anticipation of the spring excitement ahead keeps me looking up (and down and sideways)! And then it’s summer and the mountains!
Where there is no extravagance there is no love, and where there is no love there is no understanding.—Oscar Wilde
For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.—William Blake
Having grown up among the frozen wastes of Minnesota during the 1960’s and 1970’s (when it was cold!), it’s always a shock to me how early spring begins here in the Texas subtropics. This year breeding behavior seems to have begun even earlier than usual, probably due to the unusually warm winter weather (82° F in Houston on 2/9/15?). February has barely begun and the air is full of birdsong, the four-note song of the Carolina Chickadee being especially prominent. Northern Cardinals and Carolina Wrens are also singing proudly from the bare branches.
On 2/7/15 I observed a pair of Blue-winged Teal mating on Pilant Lake, BBSP. Blue-winged Teal nest primarily in grassy areas around calm ponds and lakes on the prairies (“pothole prairie” habitat) across North America, especially the upper Midwest. In Texas, Blue-winged Teal breed primarily in the Panhandle, although they are known to breed sporadically along the Upper Texas Coast down to the Rio Grande Valley. Females are known for their secretive nesting behavior, so Blue-winged Teal nests and ducklings are definitely worth keeping an eye out for this spring at BBSP.
Despite the oft-purported “widespread” and “common” nature of the Sora reported in the literature, I am always excited to see these quirky and charming (and often—nay usually—photographically uncooperative) rails. One caught my eye recently along the southern margin of Pilant Lake. This bird saw me and ambled into a hollow patch of brush under a fallen limb and kept an eye on me. This foolish bird thought it could wait me out! Me!
Sure enough, after half an hour the bird gave up on the silly man with the camera and came back out for a sun bath. Interestingly, the spot where the rail rested had two trails of tamped-down grasses leading up to it. The spot had several features in common with published descriptions of nesting sites. Although Sora nests are rare in Texas, and the spot this bird hunkered down in was probably just a hidey-hole, hope springs eternal that I found a nesting site, and I’ll keep my eye on it in the weeks to come.
Several weeks ago it seemed as if Marsh Wrens were everywhere we were along the Upper Texas Coast. One minute they were singing, and the next they were hiding. Then, just as mysteriously as they appeared, the Marsh Wrens disappeared completely. A week later, there were Carolina Wrens–also alternately singing and sneaking–where the Marsh Wrens had been before. House Wrens, too, should be around at this time of year, but where are they? Hiding, no doubt.
The name for the Wren Family, Troglodytidae, refers to a “creeper into holes, or cave dweller.” One can, of course, think of many examples to justify this name. The booming voices of Canyon Wrens can be heard up and down the arid canyons they inhabit. They are fun to watch as they climb up vertical cliff walls and poke around nooks, crannies, and caves. House Wrens nest in cavities, and we’ve seen Rock Wrens in the Gila National Forest (New Mexico) nesting in limestone caves.
While birding the rain forests of Olympic National Park, Washington, we were treated to the incredibly loud and penetrating songs of the Winter Wren. Finding and photographing the birds was a challenge, though. These birds favor the understory vegetation among the massive fallen logs of mighty conifers. This humid, gloomy, atmospheric environment is low on light, and the birds scurried and sneaked suspiciously among the shadows when not serenading.
Be they House, Carolina, Canyon, Rock, Cactus, Marsh, or Winter, all wrens seem to have this now you-see-me, now-you-don’t personality. One minute they are singing their lungs out obliviously ten feet from the birder, the next they re scurrying and hiding.
Of course, this contradictory behavior is the result of two competing impulses. Most of the time wrens are secretive and shy—like most birds as they try to remain inconspicuous to predators. Then the singing begins, for all the reasons songbirds sing. They have no secrets . . . from potential mates and pretenders to their kingdoms, that is.
How infinitely charming, though, when after an hour or so of playing hide-and-seek with the birder, a wren hops up onto stump or low branch and starts his aria, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (Love is a rebellious bird)! Fortississimo, if you please!
Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.—Ayn Rand
Being from Minnesota, I am usually only reluctantly looking forward to spring in Texas—mainly because the summer swelter soon follows. But this winter, the weather (mostly drizzle, fog, mist, clouds; rain) has been so appalling that I am definitely looking forward to spring more than most years. In addition to watching out for migrants, primarily at the migrant traps like Lafitte’s Cove, High Island, Sabine Woods, etc., we’ll be on the lookout for nesting birds, eggs and babies. And the Texas Gulf Coast is a great place for rookeries . . .
One of the best rookeries for observation and photography, of course, is the Smith Oaks Rookery on High Island. I have not been there since buying our 600mm f/4L, though. Some of the nests at Smith Oaks are just a little too far for optimum results with a 500mm lens, so I am looking forward to what can be gained with the extra focal length.
Unfortunately, two problems exist at Smith Oaks: crowding and mosquitos. Although not quite as bad as a shopping mall the day before Christmas, High Island can be quite crowded and not all birders are quite civilized. Some birders seem insistent that photographers stay in the “designated tripod photography areas, ” while some others feel free to stand around in those areas without taking pictures. In any case, listening to the snarky comments while swatting mosquitos may be amusing. Or not.
We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.—Joseph Campbell